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Surveillance: Empty promises

SHORTLY before he went on holiday, and was caught by the world’s press missing an easy putt, Barack Obama promised that an “independent” panel of “outside experts” would be set up to scrutinise the work of the National Security Agency (NSA). Few supporters of Edward Snowden, whose leaks revealed the scale of NSA snooping, will be impressed by this performance either. On August 13th the White House had to quash rumours that the new task-force would be led by James Clapper, who has kept his job as director of national intelligence despite fibbing to Congress about the spying. Although Mr Clapper will help the working group, said a flack, the president will decide who sits on the panel and what its aim will be.Mr Obama announced a few other reforms on August 9th, all of them designed to allay concerns about the NSA’s snooping. The most substantial is a commitment to tweak the workings of the secret court which approves electronic spying and interprets counter-terrorism laws. The court now hears only the government’s side of each argument it considers; the president wants an opposing view represented.Other concessions are cosmetic. Mr Obama released a document summarising why he thinks Section 215 of the Patriot Act entitles the spies to collect details of Americans’ phone calls. The arguments in it are familiar, and remain contested. He stopped short of declassifying the…

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